He believes he’s the best poker player in the world, and that he has special powers. But is Phil Hellmuth’s incredible self-belief just a load of b.s? Michael Kaplan finds out…
If you have even a passing interest in poker, you know about Phil Hellmuth. You recognise him as the Poker Brat. You’ve seen him stomp around when he loses and heard him berate players who suck out. That’s the Phil Hellmuth you see on TV, love to watch and love to hate.
Fellow pros pile on with gusto, painting him as a train wreck, an egomaniac, a rotten cash game player. One well-known player sent around an email with new synonyms for fish; Hellmuth’s name came right between junk merchant and wild man. That he’s great in tournaments, of course, goes without saying – as it would for anyone who’s taken down nearly $9m and snagged a current record 10 World Series of Poker bracelets.
But it’s everything else that you have to wonder about. Hell, I’ve interviewed the guy half-a-dozen times and have portrayed him as a blowhard, a tortured individual and an attention-starved baby. That said, this isn’t going to be the kind of story that aims to bury Hellmuth. But it won’t be a puff piece either.
I’m flying out to Palo Alto, where Hellmuth lives with his wife (a psychiatrist at Stanford University) and their two sons. My intention is to get inside his head a little bit, give him a chance to answer his critics and to find out more about who Hellmuth really is. I want to know what drives him, how his reputation for being an asshole squares with the fact that he once cried behind his wraparound Oakley sunglasses after a particularly bad beat. His reason for sobbing at the table? He cared that much about winning.
The first thing you notice is that Hellmuth lives in a very nice – but not spectacular – corner house on a busy, leafy street in a university town that epitomises high-priced Silicon Valley. He comes to the door with a mobile phone pressed to his ear, promising to recruit Johnny Chan for a project he’s involved with. Dressed in black, wearing the first poker bracelet he ever won back in 1989 (Hellmuth says it’s been on his wrist since December), Hellmuth wastes no time in telling me about the business undertakings he’s got in motion: a computer game for PlayStation, an energy drink and an online poker course. Plus he has full-time employees working on launching a line of clothing (Poker Brat) and a publishing company (Phil’s House). ‘I want to make $100m,’ he tells me later, pointing out that he’s invested in a number of Silicon Valley start-ups and that he owns a large piece of Card Player magazine. ‘I don’t have that now. But maybe I’m worth that on paper.’
Hellmuth leads me to a freshly renovated office in the back of his house. Scattered around the bookcases are photos of him with professional athletes, and a Warhol-style print of Hellmuth as a young poker pro. Buried on his desk, hand-printed on a sheet of paper, is the following:
Believe and trust in the future.
Great things always happen to me.
Thank you, universe.
It speaks volumes about where Hellmuth sees himself in the world and what he views as his due. It seems like as good a place to start as any. Unlike a lot of pros who aim to simply win as much money as possible, Hellmuth has always envisioned his place in the game as something deeper. It’s contributed to his heavy focus on tournaments. So much so that Greg Raymer once opined that Hellmuth would happily give up the money he’s won at the Series in exchange for more bracelets. I mention this to Hellmuth and, without hesitation, he says it’s the truth. More precisely, he asks, ‘How many people would pay $20,000 to win the Big One and get no money? I would do it. But, of course, you can’t buy a bracelet.’ He explains: ‘If you’re trying to make history, if you want to be the greatest poker player of all time – which I’m trying to be – then at least 75 percent of it is getting there in tournaments where there is a level playing field and everyone starts with the same amount of chips.’
His point is that cash games can be deceiving: you might win because you pick your spots carefully and have a big enough bankroll to withstand major negative swings when, in reality, you are more of a break-even player. ‘With cash, nobody knows the circumstances. With tournaments, everybody knows. I’m thinking that I’ll win 24 bracelets on my way to becoming the greatest poker player of all time.’
You can argue about the likelihood of that happening, but what about the remaining 25 percent? The cash games where pros like Barry Greenstein deride Hellmuth as being weak?
‘I played the Big Game once this year and I won $170,000,’ Hellmuth replies sharply. ‘I would have won $250,000, but I took insurance four or five times. I’ve had three losing trips in the side games over the last three years, but I’m ahead in the Big Game and I hear all this b.s. about not being good. But you have to ask individual players about me. David Benyamine has played with me four or five times and he knows I can play the side games at the level of being great. Patrik Antonius will probably tell you that I play great, though he’s only seen me once. Barry [Greenstein] will be my biggest critic. But he’s played in the side games with me one time in the last five years, and I ended up maybe a $250,000 winner that night. Yet he still goes around telling everybody how terrible I am. That’s just the way he is.’
How about Daniel Negreanu? When Hellmuth materialised on the High Stakes Poker set last year, Negreanu, an old friend, could not contain his glee. He actually exclaimed the word ‘Yum’ upon seeing Hellmuth, as if the man who’s striving to be the greatest poker player in history was really a giant slab of chocolate cake. After letting slip that Negreanu might not have broken even on High Stakes as he claims he did (Hellmuth estimates Negreanu lost $500,000 on the show), Hellmuth acknowledges that he played badly on High Stakes, where he lost $150,000. ‘I decided to play at the last minute, I was focused on business at the time, and I was unprepared,’ he says, pointing out that he lost one big pot to Greenstein’s quad Eights and lost another with top two-pair to a set of Queens. ‘So what? When I play poker tournaments I am prepared.’
It was inarguably the case at last year’s World Series. That’s when Hellmuth managed to make the money in eight events, taking $1.1m and one bracelet (for the $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em w/Rebuys event). The performance dramatically contrasts with what went down in 2005 when he failed to crack six figures. Hellmuth blames that dry spell on a lack of focus, which set in after he returned from a mid-Series trip to Canada for a personal appearance. He beat himself up over it and, last year, remained completely in the moment: no email, no mobile phone, no leaving Vegas.
‘I was smart about sleep and about making adjustments,’ Hellmuth says, explaining that he’d dissect each day of play, find his weaknesses and work toward fixing them. ‘I did what I could to get some sleep without taking pills. If we finished playing at 1.30am I’d hire a limo and go to 24 Hour Fitness. Then I’d come back, eat some salmon and go to sleep. I spent time in the sun, meditated almost every day, and stayed in a King Suite at Caesars. That did something for my psyche; I was in a nice room, there was a reason for my having that room, and it underscored my need to perform. My bill at the end of the Series was $32,000. I paid it, but I thought Harrah’s could have comped it.’
Despite Hellmuth’s best efforts though, weeks of play took a toll on him in 2006. He was playing in the Hold’em rebuy event and running badly. So badly, in fact, that by the end of the rebuy period he hadn’t won a single pot. ‘I went to the UltimateBet lounge and told my parents that I had no strength left,’ he remembers. ‘My mom said, “I’m gonna fill you up with gas.” She made this gesture as if she was doing it, and it was like a spiritual moment. I was, like, “Holy cow, what the hell happened?” It might have been my imagination, but something weird happened. She really did fill me up with energy. I went back to the table, picked up A-K, and figured that even if I lost I’d have a great story about playing in a tournament and not winning a single pot. But I did win. And then I hit a huge rush. Within an hour I was chip leader. I was still exhausted, but I know how to get the chip lead home, even when I’m exhausted.’ It worked. Hellmuth went on to win the tournament’s first prize of $631,863.
More than most pros, possibly more than any pros, Hellmuth puts a lot of stock in the metaphysical. There is a frequently repeated anecdote about the British psychic Rose Gladden telling a teenage Hellmuth that he was destined for great things. There is his overarching belief in his place in the universe, in a sense of destiny that most poker players don’t bother cluttering their minds with. And there is a hitherto untold tale about him having a life-changing epiphany when he was a young rounder on the poker scene in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.
Hellmuth was 23 years old, he had accumulated a bankroll of about $30,000, and he had blown off a regular poker game that started at 11am. Instead, he and a couple of gambling cronies went to a local bar for a drink. The other guys had been smoking weed and were about to play pool for money. Hellmuth wandered out of the bar and onto a snow-covered street. He remembers white light glinting up from the snow, and it triggered an awakening. ‘I suddenly decided that this was not what I wanted to do with my life,’ Hellmuth remembers. ‘I decided that if poker was to be it, I needed to reach for the stars, I needed to be the greatest. I went home that day and did a lot of writing. I wrote out a game plan and a pyramid of success. There was a chart that showed the path of money in poker. It rises to the top, and I knew I needed to get up there to make the money.’
Trips to Vegas soon followed. He kept having visions of himself wearing a hood and hunching over the poker table. Years later Hellmuth has come to believe that the image in his brain was foreshadowing the monk-like patience he’d need to beat the game. After losing money on his first nine outings, he finally went home with a profit after the 10th. Then, a couple of years later, in 1988, he finished 33rd in the World Series of Poker Main Event. Then, a week or so after that, he aced the prestigious Diamond Jim Brady tournament at the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles. It brought him $125,000, served as his first major win, and turned him instantly cocky. During a 1989 tournament in Malta, he made a point of telling T.J. Cloutier that he was the second best poker player in the world (behind Johnny Chan who had won his second bracelet in a row that year). Much to Hellmuth’s chagrin, his nickname for the tournament became ‘Number Two’.
Despite the social stumbles, things began to go well enough that Hellmuth figured he’d never look back. But he did. In fact, there’ve been some nearly disastrous moments, like the time he sold his house in Madison, in the middle of a World Series, and had the cheque sent directly to the Horseshoe casino. Hellmuth laid his cheque on the poker table and Bobby Baldwin gave him $210,000 in cash. ‘I started to play and got down to the last $50,000 I had to my name,’ he says. ‘That’s when something inside me woke up and said, “You better use every power you have right now.” I sat up straight in my chair, focused, and made sure that my reading abilities got better. Ultimately, I won $70,000 in that game, kept my winnings, and sent the cheque home to my wife. But that was the closest I’ve come to going broke, and I was an idiot for doing it.’
In fact, for all the ego issues that Hellmuth is famous for, he actually checks his head when it comes to money management. He shows it by telling stories about going to poker tournaments and budgeting what he’s willing to lose in cash games, blowing the allotted money and turning down offers to borrow. ‘I buried my head in the sand,’ he says, ‘and people laughed at me.’
In 1998, when, Hellmuth says, he was a millionaire on paper, he began running bad enough that he didn’t want to lose any more of his own cash. He avoided the urge to sell stock or borrow against his house. Instead he got Ted Forrest to back him. By the 2001 World Series, Hellmuth’s make-up number reached $200,000. ‘But I had a great Series that year; I cashed [for over $700,000 and finished fifth in the Main Event],’ Hellmuth says, explaining that he paid off Forrest and resumed financing his own play. ‘I remember handing Ted half-a-million in chips and he took it in cash. He wrapped the money up in a couple of plastic bags and we went to the Bellagio together, but I was scared to be with him. I remember thinking, “Shit, if someone wants to rob him, I don’t want to get shot in the process.” We walked into the Horseshoe parking structure with all that money and I was paranoid as hell. I’d have taken a limo, but we didn’t.’
Jekyll and Hyde
Stories like these present Hellmuth as an entertaining, self-effacing guy. He acknowledges his sense of entitlement, insists that he’s earned it, and seems to be a little ashamed of the meltdowns for which he’s become most famous. But away from the table, out of the moment, he distances himself from the Phil that we see on TV.
‘My wife and I watch me on TV and we laugh; she doesn’t know the Poker Brat and we’re like, “Who is that idiot?” What you see on TV is just me, reacting, at the poker table. I don’t behave that way when I’m not playing poker. He points out that the blow-ups almost always happen in big tournaments with a lot at stake and emotions running high. It’s not offered as an excuse, but as an explanation. Then, in the next breath, he admits that he’s tried to reign things in – but to little avail. Hellmuth has seen psychotherapists, he’s mediated, he’s tried to discipline himself.
‘Obviously it’s part of the complete package,’ he offers. ‘If I could tell you why [the meltdowns happen], I would. I know it hurts my focus when I go crazy. I incite myself. But you play two days of perfect poker and some idiot puts all his money in with Q-10 when you have A-K. He’s just trying to go broke and go home – to New York in the case of Robert Varkonyi [who made the above play]. I smell it out, make the call, and the flop comes A-Q-10. The idiot wins all the chips and I go crazy.’
Last time he flipped out was at the EPT final in Monte Carlo, after his Kings got cracked. Mulling over the circumstances, Hellmuth wishes he was good enough to have folded. After all, the cornerstone of his game is to play small-pot poker (a strategy that he says he invented) and never risk a tournament on a single hand. The point here is that Hellmuth believes he is good enough to outplay others without taking crippling risks himself.
‘When it comes to playing limit and no-limit hold’em tournaments I am the best,’ he says. ‘There is no disputing that. At cash games I am one of the best in the world. I haven’t proven that yet, but I will. Hold’em and I are good friends.’ He lets this hokey sentiment hang in the air for a beat. Then he tops it: ‘You can say that Texas hold’em is my best friend.’
Cosmic ordering (or Phil’s ‘things to do’ list)
Most people just take a newspaper to the toilet but not Phil Hellmuth. Taped to the mirror in his bathroom are two sheets of paper, as listed below. ‘Some of these goals may be sick,’ he acknowledges. ‘But I read the list and leave in a good mood every day.’
Things for which Phil is grateful
- Perfect health for me and my family
- My 10 World Series of Poker titles
- Mega fortune and fame
- PH poster and PH calendar
Hellmuth’s goals for 2007 and 2008
- Win two events at the 2007 WSOP
- Win/make at least 20 million dollars in 2007
- Poker Brat slot machines
- Win the Premiership of Poker [actually the Premier League of Poker – he came third] in London
- Have the Poker Brat movie green-lit
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